PAIFIC VS GU 11

Gonzaga guard Nolan Hickman steals the ball from Pacific guard Khaleb Wilson-Rouse during the Zags’ home win last February.

It’s the offseason, but there’s really never one of those for Gonzaga basketball.

In the last month alone the Zags scheduled a two-game series with Kentucky, Nigel Williams-Goss returned to Spokane to conduct his annual camp, former GU standouts competed at the NBA Summer League and the program finalized plans to face Michigan State on an aircraft carrier.

That leaves plenty of time for our annual attempt at reading Mark Few’s mind regarding Gonzaga’s starting lineup and potential rotation with the season opener three months away.

Some years, it’s fairly ironclad who lines up for the opening tip and who fills out GU’s customary seven- or eight-man rotation. We took a stab at this prior to last season and hit on 80% – excellent at the plate in baseball and at the free-throw line, but we didn’t go 5 for 5 on the starters.

Gonzaga’s coaching staff has made this exercise more difficult by assembling one of the deeper rosters in recent memory. The Zags have symmetry with their 12 scholarship players. They have six bigs with Drew Timme, Anton Watson, Efton Reid, Ben Gregg, Kaden Perry and Braden Huff, and six guards/wings in Julian Strawther, Rasir Bolton, Nolan Hickman, Malachi Smith, Hunter Sallis and Dominick Harris.

Locks, or close to it

When Timme, Bolton and Strawther opted to put their pro careers on hold and return to Gonzaga, it all but stamped the Zags as a viable national championship contender and likely firmed up three-fifths of the starting lineup. Few, and essentially every coach on the planet, has an affinity for proven players with longevity in the program and it’s no secret that “older” teams tend to thrive in the NCAA Tournament.

Timme, a two-time AP second-team All-American, will be among the favorites for national player of the year. The 6-foot-10 forward has scored 1,521 career points. With another 600-point campaign – he’s averaged 599 the last two seasons – he would move into second on Gonzaga’s all-time list behind Frank Burgess, who scored 2,196 in three seasons (1959-61).

Timme has averaged 28.1 minutes and 18.7 points the last two years. Those figures probably won’t change much this season. He’s started 64 straight games, and No. 65 should come vs. North Florida in the season opener Nov. 7.

Strawther had a breakout season as a sophomore and figures to carry a bigger load this season. The 6-7 wing has a knack for scoring and should only get better at both ends of the court with added muscle and strength. He could put himself on a similar trajectory as former Zags wing Corey Kispert, who had a big senior season to move from a probable second-round selection in 2020 to the 15th overall pick in 2021.

Bolton was an ideal fit with GU last season. The grad transfer from Iowa State drained 3-pointers (46%), hit free throws (81.7%), defended and took care of the ball.

Timme, Strawther and Bolton could gobble up 80-plus minutes per game against Gonzaga’s toughest competition. That leaves two starting spots and roughly 120 minutes of playing time.

The question then becomes: Does Gonzaga go small ball with four guards/wings or bigger with two forwards and Strawther at the ‘3’? The Zags have the bodies to do both.

Running the show

Hickman and Chattanooga transfer Smith are the main options to replace Andrew Nembhard at point guard, but Hickman has a year of experience in Gonzaga’s system and he’s more of a prototypical point guard. Smith was a big-time scorer the last two seasons in the Southern Conference while logging nearly 36 minutes per game.

Why not both in the starting lineup? Hickman would probably be the primary ballhandler but Bolton, Smith, Strawther and Timme are all capable working off the bounce. That’s a lot of firepower, particularly from distance with Bolton, Smith (39.7% the last two seasons) and Strawther (36.5%), and Timme’s craftiness from 15 feet and in. Timme also knocked down 3s at the NBA Draft Combine in May.

A small-ball unit with Strawther at the ‘4’ – much like Kispert playing the ‘4’ his senior year – seemingly meshes with Gonzaga’s fondness for multiple ballhandlers, spacing the floor and fast-paced style. We’re penciling in Hickman, Bolton, Smith, Strawther and Timme as the starting five. The latter four have played in 364 collegiate games, led by Bolton’s 115, and made 249 starts.

The Zags obviously have the flexibility to adjust, particularly against an opponent with a sizable frontcourt, such as Kentucky and last year’s player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, Texas or Michigan State. Gonzaga could easily put more size on the floor and pair the 6-11 Reid or 6-8 Watson with Timme.

Our guess is Watson would be first in line to start if Gonzaga goes with a bigger starting unit. He has a ton of experience playing alongside Timme. Watson has been steady in the 15- to 18-minute range in his first three seasons and has the ability to defend smaller opponents. He will be tough to keep off the court if he dials in his 3-point stroke.

Rotation and roles

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Sallis cracks the starting five should Gonzaga use four guards/wings. Sallis and Hickman could become the Zags’ breakout players this season, similar to Strawther’s emergence a year ago. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if Sallis moved into the starting lineup during the season the way Joel Ayayi replaced Admon Gilder in the starting unit 10 games into the 2019-20 season.

The 6-5 Sallis is bouncy, an elite defender and scores in transition, on putbacks and off cuts to the basket.

It won’t be easy for bench players to find extended time, even if Few stretches the rotation to nine. Watson’s and Reid’s minutes could fluctuate depending on how often Gonzaga employs four guards. Behind those two, Ben Gregg appears to be the next big in line. Kaden Perry’s status won’t be known until the fall as he mends from back surgery. Freshman Braden Huff is a skilled big, but playing time could be scarce behind Timme, Watson and Reid.

Dominick Harris will be highly motivated to earn court time after missing last season following foot surgery, but minutes might be hard to come by simply because of the team’s impressive backcourt depth.